Sunday 29 December 2013

Beating Gary Lineker on penalties

As a little end of year treat, thought I'd post a few videos which show my supremacy at penalties over former England striker Gary Lineker. 

After an interview with the former Spurs and Barcelona star last month we took a few penalties, mine was scored first time and Gary's on the third attempt. 

Better get my ticket to Brazil 2014 booked!

Sunday 24 November 2013

The evolution of live blogging on football

Live blogging on football matches has become an established medium over the last decade as fans’ desire to access the latest updates on games and improvements in technology across platforms has driven an increase in its use. But competition is hotting up as new providers with innovative features square up; Alex Lawson takes a look at the tactic.

“1635: This match is petering out for a nil-nil, looks like the players, too, indulged in the half time steak and kidney pies. There’s not a hint of invention as both teams look content to take a point home.
“1637: GOAL! Fantastic strike from the left winger after a jinking run skinning four defenders and arrowing it into the top right hand corner. Astonishing.”
Such is the life of a live blogger, one minute attempting to make a quip about a paint-drying type scenario, the next describing incredible scenes at lightning pace. The discipline is a difficult one but represents one of the true innovations in modern journalism. While live blogging is now used to cover everything from court cases to elections, it was in sport that it found a mainstream audience as its structure suited the technique well.
BBC Sport online was among the first to offer the service as users logged on to keep abreast of the action at the cricket over-by-over. The broadcaster harnessed Radio 4′s Test Match Special’s colloquial, informal commentary style and passion for talking about unrelated oddities alongside the match in its text coverage. This tone continues to be the prevailing style employed by live bloggers.
Some of its journalists, including tennis coverage’s Caroline Cheese and live football boss Andy McKenzie, have gone on to form LiveWire Sport – a live blogging specialist set up in August 2011 which has covered major events including the Olympics, Euro 2012 and the Ryder Cup.
McKenzie tells the discipline has evolved significantly. “Live blogging has come a long way in the past decade when there weren’t too many media organisations covering the major events other than the likes of the BBC, the Guardian and Cricinfo,” he said. “If you look back to when England won the Rugby World Cup in 2003 the clockwatch, as they were called at the Beeb, was very different to what they are now: no pictures, no video, no interaction, no live stats, no pre-match build-up or post-match reaction or analysis. No personality, just a pretty dry description of the action. Looking back now they seem about as exciting as watching a clock.”
McKenzie adds that faster connections, increasing use of mobile and the growth of social media have spurred on the development of live coverage of sporting events. But if the market was dominated by several players initially, businesses like LiveWire are rolling up their sleeves for a fight now as new services launch. Cover It Live offers users several distinctive features including question and answer sessions and photo slideshows while US firm Scribble Live works with global giants including ESPN and CNN to deliver a similar service. Sports Mole, too, offers a rudimentary version of the service while Deltatre’s Diva service, aimed at TV rights holders, has introduced multiscreen video highlights. 
And then there’s Liveplayer. Introduced at the start of this season, Liveplayer is a product developed by digital marketing agency Aqueduct in partnership with LiveWire Sport to allow clubs to embed a live match centre feature on their websites. Aqueduct, which already had a strong relationship with Manchester City, launched the service with the Premier League title contenders this season.
In essence it offers the kind of live blogging service the BBC and national press sites currently offer – esoteric commentary complemented by quotes and tweets. However, Liveplayer’s offer adds a number of new features including player heat maps, manager’s programme notes and integration of local radio coverage.
The service is also designed for different missions – with one tab offering the basic facts of the match for those scanning on the move and another offering detailed commentary and highlights from social media. “The social media side of the match is of course important, and our research indicates this is especially so for younger fans,” says Aqueduct strategist Robert Quantrell. “Manchester City have used this research to increase the level of social media activation within the Liveplayer commentary stream, using image tweets, fan tweets and Instagram and Vine videos to provide alternative content sources for their fans.”
Quantrell says that adding a live match centre to their site can also help clubs connect with fans, creating a ‘digital stadium’ for those following the game remotely across the globe. “Innovation in social is key, of course, but being better than your competitors in the live matchday experience you offer to fans who can’t be at the game is, we think, an invaluable string to any football club’s bow,” he says.
The next steps taken in live blogging on football are likely to be significant ones. Quantrell believes multi-screening is likely to be key while online TV rights to matches could also shape its future. “The question is how we can fit in with a club or federation’s plans to use these rights, whether they choose to screen them behind a subscription paywall, registration wall, or by keeping the content free and exploiting sponsorship and advertising opportunities.”
BT Sport’s power play in inking its £897m deal to show the Champions League from 2015 may also drive this forward as the telecoms giant has experience in live blogging and screening matches online. McKenzie believes live sports blogging is on the cusp of a new era. “I think you’ll see things developing now that most broadcasters, clubs, governing bodies and even sponsors and brands are seeing the benefits of covering events live in terms of the huge audiences it can drive, the increased dwell times and engagement,” he says.
“Some of the things we’re working on are better integration with not just video, stats and social but also the possibilities with gaming and betting and how to maximise revenue from those audiences.”
The coverage of live matches online has developed rapidly from bland minute- by-minute descriptions of the action to interactive hubs for entertaining information often not even related to the game and shaping online communities in the last decade. As users habits continue to change rapidly, it appears likely the demand to feel like you’re at the match with the rest of the globe quipping in your ear will ratchet up significantly.
Article originally appeared on

Tuesday 22 October 2013

Opinion: Zlatan Ibrahimović triumphs due to his background

Mercurial striking talent Zlatan Ibrahimović as largely been billed as a man who defied his background on the re-release of his autobiography. However, Alex Lawson argues it is his background which made him the player he is.

If there has been one player who has divided opinion across the global game in the last decade, it's Zlatan Ibrahimović. From being dubbed the next van Basten to a 'big game bottler', the tall Swede who has led the line for Europe's premier clubs never fails to attract attention. 

'Welcome to Planet Zlatan', the blurb on the back of Zlatan Ibrahimović's autobiography reads. The strapline is an apt one as the reader is rapidly sent up in a rocket powered by the Swedish legend's ego into a world unlike any other. 

As unreliable narrators go, Ibrahimović was always going to rank highly. His version of events in his life and the frequent glossing over of details with a thick brush leads to a thrilling, if sceptical read. 

Much of the focus around 'I am Zlatan Ibrahimovic's release has been on his upbringing in the council estates of Rosengård, a district of Malmo. And it is these passages which provide arguably the most interest, so closely documented has his career been since. 

There are details of alcohol and drug abuse in his family; both of his parents' tempers and the struggle over custody. Zlatan himself, it appears, has always had a short fuse ("I was rowdy. I was mental," he admits) as well as the cocksure self-confidence he is known for which led to several bust ups with junior coaches. 

Ibrahimovic's is not a straightforward tale of humble triumph over adversity, the book reveals he kept his cantankerous heart from his teenage years through to his career as an international superstar. Perhaps most revealing is his latent surprise at his rapid rise from a substitute at  Malmö FF into Sweden's most expensive player when he landed a £6m move to Ajax.

It is this unique combination of a player who did not have a parent at the sidelines willing him on (until his Yugoslavian dad finally shows up when he's almost a pro) and an attitude which blew hot and cold which made Ibrahimovic the no.9 we know. If his signature arrogance is his most talked about trait, it is only a by product of having almost no one else - apart from Malmö FF sporting director Hasse Borg - who believed in him. 

And so the Ibrahimovic we know was born. Astonishing Taekwondo kick goals combined with lunacy off the field racing cars, deliberately hanging with unsavoury individuals and talking himself up to the media. That last relationship is interestingly explored in the book. At first, Zlatan courted the media and makes bold statements at every turn but quickly he was stung and pinpoints several personal vendettas not least with Swedish tabloid Aftonbladet.

Ibrahimovic's decision to open the book with his year-long dispute with former Barcelona manager Pep Guardiola is an intriguing one. Perhaps the biggest conflict of his argumentative career, the difference in the dispute with the Spanish boss and other stand-offs in his life is the cold, quietness of the controversy. Ibrahimovic talks of being sidelined outside an exclusive Tiki-taka club including Messi, who he admits he even promised Guardiola he would be subservient too and be part of a team built around the Argentine. 

Ibrahimović's has been a career marked by conflict and success. The former, perhaps wisely, is given the most air time. However, it's worth standing back and peaking into his trophy cabinet of league titles in the Netherlands, Italy, Spain and France. Ibrahimovic is one of the most talented and controversial players of his generation, he is also a unique example of triumph because of adversity. 

Article originally appeared on

Sunday 20 October 2013

London Sports Writing Festival considers how El Clásico gained its bite

A heated panel discussion on the highest profile match in world football - Barcelona v Real Madrid - was a highlight of the London Sports Writing Festival at Lords this week. The four-day event featured a plethora of interesting speakers from British rower Katherine Grainger to BBC Sports website supremo Ben Dirs. As a fan of excellent sports writing, collecting the great and good in one event at the home of cricket was mouthwatering. 

Guardian Spanish football correspondent Sid Lowe and Sky Sports' man in Spain, Graham Hunter, squared up on each side of the debate over El Classico, chaired by The Times writer Matt Dickinson. A packed audience listened attentively as the two took apart the rivalry in what has realistically become a two-team league.

Hunter claimed Johan Cruyff shaped the modern rivalry. He argued the Dutchman, who demolished Real in a 5-0 for the Catalans in February 1974, paved the way for future matches to be considered the peak of Spanish football. He believes that Cryuff's desire as both player and coach to overcome Barca's greatest rivals added spice to their encounters.

Lowe, who has just published Fear and Loathing in La Liga, an excellent look at the fixture, argued that Real legend Alfredo Di Stefano played a bigger part in shaping the modern dynamic. While he agreed that the 5-0 game was a crucial point, Lowe articulately outlined the circumstances around Di Stefano's complex transfer, in which both teams laid claim to the talented Argentine and even briefly countenanced sharing him in alternate seasons.

While Real Madrid's nine European Cup and Champions League victories have long been held as the most significant element in arguing which is the more successful team, it is the club's relationship with Spanish dictator Franco which gets more air time even than to the merits of Barca and Spain's Tiki-taka re-invention of the game. The perception of Real Madrid as Franco's club is one which Lowe points out the club have done little to dispel, and the image of Los Blancos as the monied class is only further exemplified by the Galactico era and Gareth Bale's humungous transfer fee.

An intellectual debate is only undermined by several self-serving questions from the audience. Hunter's repeated attempts to second guess why the audience have attended rather than simply debate the subject is a little tiresome. But largely, this was an interesting and informed discussion on the merits of each club and their relationship.

In reality, both teams need each other and while Barca are streaking away at the top of the league this season, both are incredibly successful. A key question asked is whether the seeming lack of competition in the league may have damaged their performance in Europe - after being hammered by Germans in last season's Champions League semi-finals. 

Moreover, the number of Classicos, perpetuated by showpiece friendlies and domestic cup success, may also have diminished its standing. But El Classico looks set to remain the most intense fixture in world football for some time as the two giants fight over the world's pre-eminent players.

Thursday 3 October 2013

How Liverpool Ladies broke Arsenal's title monopoly

Liverpool Ladies’ title win shattered Arsenal’s decade-long grip on the FA Women’s Super League (FAWSL) title. Alex Lawson looks at how they achieved it. 
Liverpool Ladies midfielder Louise Fors could have been forgiven for feeling a little nervous as she stepped up to take a first half penalty for the Reds against Bristol on Sunday. The spot kick was a crucial moment in a title decider few would have predicted at the start of the season.
Liverpool top scorer Natasha Dowie
As the new season opened, Liverpool had notched just two wins in the previous two seasons as they finished rock bottom in each. However, the Anfield club’s US owners ploughed money into its women’s team and brought in new manager Matt Beard to lead the side.
Moreover, a handful of classy foreign signings from the US, Sweden and Germany – who were given English lessons funded by the men’s team – were brought in to gel with the core home grown talent in the side.
Under Beard, Liverpool became the first team in the FAWSL to train full-time and a winning mentality was bred. Beard’s publicly stated aim of a mid-table finish has been blown out of the water by a team which scored 44 goals on the way to Sunday’s title decider, spurred on by former Crystal Palace and Coventry manager Iain Dowie’s niece Natasha.
Dowie, the league’s top scorer with 19 goals, was snubbed by former England manager Hope Powell for the squad for the summer’s Euro 2013 finals but took the rejection in her stride.
She has also spoken of the incentive that hunting down Arsenal Ladies – a team which bore comparison to the relentless winning machine of Manchester United’s men’s side in the 1990s – gave the side. With foreign players on board, the stigma of beating the dominant Gunners has been quelled and both Liverpool and Bristol have outclassed them during this 14-game this season.
So when Fors stepped up, there was a deal of pressure to see through what has been a significant journey for Liverpool. But she cooly dispatched the penalty and when Icelandic midfielder Katrin Omarsdottir struck home from Dowie’s pass Liverpool had secured a momentous victory at the Halton Stadium.
So what does Liverpool Ladies victory mean for the game? Firstly, there’s a new sense of vitality and competition to the league as Liverpool became the first league victors who weren’t Arsenal since Fulham in 2003. Moreover, it provides some healthy coverage for the women’s game after the poor showing by England at Euro 2013 damaged perceptions of domestic women’s football.
However, the pattern of Powell’s sacking after a lacklustre tournament and a team with significant financial backing surging up the league to take the title via a raft of foreign players is a familiar one. While the likes of Chelsea and Manchester City have clinched the Premier League title with a handful of English players, neither can seriously claim to be aiding the blooding of homegrown talent.
The British spine of Liverpool’s team – namely Dowie, midfielder Fara Williams and captain Gemma Bonner – may take experience from this victory but there remains work to be done if the national side is to remain undamaged by the lack of opportunities for young home grown talent.
For Arsenal, who were deducted three points for fielding an unregistered player but would still have lost out to Liverpool, this may provide the shot in the arm to kickstart a fightback.
Article originally appeared on

Sunday 29 September 2013

Opinion: Spurs fans must ditch the Y-word

David Cameron's entrance into the debate over the use of the word 'yid' by Tottenham Hotspur supporters has only served to push those with extreme views either way but Spurs should leave the Y-word behind them, argues Alex Lawson 
Picture the scene. You’re a Spurs supporter with your eight-year-old taking them to White Hart Lane for the first time. During the match the home supporters begin chanting ‘Yid Army’ or another use of the Y-word. Your child, who knows nothing of World War Two, asks you what that means.
You then explain it’s a derogatory term for Jewish people, the traditional foundation of the team’s support, used ironically in response to abuse from rival supporters hissing to emulate the gas chambers of Auschwitz. Hardly the pleasant induction to live football anyone would want.
At Cardiff City Stadium yesterday many of the Spurs fans made their opinions clear with renditions of “we’re Tottenham Hotspur, we’ll sing what we want”, and repeated chants of “Yid Army” throughout the game.
The debate over the use of the Y-word in the last week has split opinion. The Football Association warned Spurs fans that those found chanting the word could be prosecuted; Prime Minister David Cameron claimed that Spurs fans have the right to describe themselves as Yids arguing that “you have to be motivated by hate to be prosecuted”, while Jewish comedian and The Y-Word filmmaker David Baddiel – a production released by Kick It Out in 2011 – argued the use of the word has clouded the simple fact it is a racist term.
Cameron’s argument is an odd one. If he acknowledges that Yid is a hate word then asking the FA and police to decide the nuance in which the word has been used makes little sense. The simple fact is, if a racist term is being used in a ground, it is not acceptable.
The obvious comparison is the use of the N-word. The censorship of the most controversial word in the English language has been a long running debate, notably exacerbated by its frequent use by black musicians with the defence that it can’t be racist if used by a black person.
However, the proliferation of a racist term, whether it refers to a black, Asian or Jewish person, can never be a good thing.
Spurs traditionally began using the term to defend themselves against the use of the word against them. Other London clubs also receive anti-semitic chants, as do Dutch giants Ajax.
Respected Society of Black Lawyers member David Neita argues that Spurs fans suggestion they are reclaiming a word originally used to taunt them is “an insult to anybody’s intelligence”. He argues that, as anti-semitism is highlighted and prosecuted in the modern age, the continued use of the word is not acceptable.
Moreover, Baddiel highlights the fact that less than five per cent of Tottenham fans are estimated to be Jewish. As such, the siege mentality defence of a persecuted minority does not stand up.
The Tottenham Hotspur Supporters’ Trust are to poll members on whether they should continue to use the word. A negative result would represent a victory for common sense and a severance of ties to an unsavoury past.
Article originally appeared on

Saturday 14 September 2013

Qatar controversy overshadows Russia 2018 World Cup disputes

With the footballing world's eyes trained on the debate over on whether Qatar can realistically host a summer World Cup, governing body FIFA is hurtling towards the preceding tournament in Russia which could prove just as controversial.

Russian sports minister Vitaly Mutko has
proved a divisive figure
Russia's selection as hosts for the 2018 tournament was seen has the lesser of two evils by the British media when England were spurned in 2010. The nation's history within the sport and its national team's excellent run to the semi-finals of Euro 2008 gave it a credence among observers. 

However, outside perceptions that two nations with significant pots of national cash had bought both events were widespread. Moreover, traditional shrouds of secrecy and mistrust between the West and Russia re-emerged as tempers ran high. 

Now, with the world questioning Qatar's ability to either host fans in sweltering summer heat or disrupt the international football calendar through a winter cup, Russia is quietly putting its plans in place. These include the erection of a number of swashbuckling asymmetric stadia at great expense

However, one man appears determined to ensure the scepticism that still surrounds the Russian game remains - Vitaly Mutko.

The country's sports minister and FIFA executive committee member has proved a controversial figure for some time. Perhaps most infamously, he was alleged to have bought 97 breakfasts in racking up a $4,500 bill in expenses while accompanying the Russian team to the Winter Olympics in Vancouver, Canada in 2010. 

When Russia were awarded the World Cup, Mutko - then president of the Russian Football Union - lashed out at English allegations of corruption in Russian football with similar counter comments. He later qualified that statement: "I meant that if you dig deeply you find corruption in any country."  

In recent months, Mutko has been at the centre of two further whirlwinds. In July, an amendment to existing laws allowed Mutko's Government to put rules in place which allow "foreign nationals and stateless persons" to be employed by official FIFA partners, effectively paving the way for illegal immigrants to be employed on longer working hours with few rights by sponsors and contractors. 

Local civil right site The Russian Reader says: "We cannot help noticing that all these measures have been proposed and ratified by the same government that is literally right now organising actual raids on migrants and imprisoning them in special camps in Moscow, Saint Petersburg, Yekaterinburg, Volgograd, Samara, Rostov-on-Don, and Kaliningrad." It adds: "Does this mean that the right hand of the Russian state doesn’t know what the left hand is doing? Not in the least. All the above-named cities are hosting the 2018 World Cup."

Add to this the controversy over Russia's new law which prevent promoting homosexuality to minors and its credibility in hosting football's premier competition is further blurred. Mutko called on international observers to "calm down" after controversial comments made by Russian Olympics pole vaulter Yelena Isinbayeva and claimed 'gay propaganda' had been whipped up in the media. 

Russia host the Winter Sochi Olympics next February and Mutko has assured visitors and athletes will have their rights and freedoms respected. 

Perhaps in reality the still resolutely macho nature of football fandom means a overt promotion of homosexual rights in 2018 is unlikely. However, allowing freedom of expression for fans in host countries remains vital if FIFA is to rescue its tattered reputation. 

While the world wonders whether a Qatari World Cup will ever happen, the shrapnel left by the Iron Curtain threatens to drive another rift between the West and the rest. 

Tuesday 3 September 2013

Review: Tony Jameson's Football Manager Ruined My Life show

The borderline between an obsession and a full blown addiction can be a fine one. When comedian Tony Jameson explains how he slipped away from a wedding to make a few vital transfers and took his laptop on an open top bus tour around Newcastle to celebrate a virtual Champions League win you are in little doubt over which camp he falls into.

Jameson, a cheeky Geordie sporting a heavily hairsprayed quiff, has taken the stage at the Dingwalls in Camden Lock to a packed house. The event, hosted by Football Manager creators Sports Interactive, sees Jameson debut his sold out Edinburgh show in London, explaining the impact of everyone’s favourite addictive computer game (which he describes as essentially “like office admin but for football”) on his life.
It wasn’t all fun and games however, as Sports Interactive promised to unveil new features of the game if attendees donated to favoured charity War Child.
 It’s fair to say Jameson is playing to a home crowd. Among the audience are the tell tale eye bags of those who’ve spent hours awaiting a chairman’s report, assessing a player’s stats and agonising over formations.
Jameson’s tale is an amusing one – after a footy injury led to a period laid up on the sofa that allowed him to indulge his addiction further and led to him shunning a career as a teacher.
Notable runs include taking Aston Villa to virtual glory only to be abandoned by his star player and powering Blyth Spartans up the league to European glory. The latter represents his proudest achievement, leading to the bus tour, contact with the Northumbrian club and an amusing video of Jameson unveiling a new signing and his statue at Spartans’ empty ground. He even glides by the camera to give a Harry Redknapp-style car-window-on-deadline-day interview.
The biggest cheers of the night went up for Football Manager’s crowning glory; the players that might have been. The addictive game thrives on stats and some players appear far better than in real life, as such pictures of the likes of former Aston Villa and Anderlecht striker Nii Lamptey and Nigerian defender Taribo ‘That Haircut’ West.
Jameson’s audience revel in the show’s identifiable moments and his ability to undermine himself is consistently funny. He hints he may develop the act to meet all of his Football Manager underachieving heroes in future.
For Sports Interactive his obsession is an excellent endorsement of a game which is loved by its players and hated by their nearest and dearest. Football Manager may have been the scourge of his early years but the sold out show, and his recent nuptials, mean things are looking up for the talented Jameson.
Article originally appeared on

Monday 19 August 2013

Review: Running with the Firm by James Bannon

You could be mistaken for thinking James Bannon's new firsthand account was yet another hooligan biography, giving graphic detail of a thug's adventures in and around football matches. However, beneath the menacing cover lies a much more intriguing tale of an undercover police officer who, as part of a team of four, infiltrated Milwall's notorious 'Bushwackers' firm in the late 1980s. 

The story itself has already been documented by 1995 film I.D, a brutal re-imagining covering an unidentified firm and anonymous club. However, Bannon's decision to break his twenty-year silence gives a fresh immediacy to this book. 

We follow Bannon as he quickly makes friends with some of The Lions' 'top boys' posing as a painter and decorator from Wandsworth named 'Jim'. The operation gives a fascinating glimpse into police tactics at the time, with some clubs - including Manchester City - afforded whole undercover squads with high tech surveillance systems to catch hooligans. 
It is Jim's transition from high flying young copper to Milwall hardman which is perhaps most engaging. 

We follow him as he struggles with his new identity and his guilt over the enjoyment he gets adrenaline of the violence and potentially stitching up his mates. There are also questions over whether he is following or leading the violence which are never quite addressed. 

Elsewhere the account features a love dilemma, Bannon's unlikely continuing support of Milwall to this day and plenty of worries over getting discovered. We also get humour, most notably when Jim and several other hardmen attempt to stake out a chemist's using cans of hairspray.

His potential discovery provides the momentum through the book however given his status in being able to write it the suspense is limited.

There are other problems too. The relentless chronology of the piece - including what time he gets to work each day and what drinks he had - become waring and perhaps hint there was not enough material to create a truly compelling piece of work. 

The story ark, being a work of non-fiction, is excusably a little disappointing with little real climax to key issues. Perhaps what is really lacking is the football. A few references to Sheringham here and there don't really give the flavour of supporting the club and, while clearly not the point of the piece, more colour around the atmosphere in a crowd as the team was promoted to the first division would've been welcome. 

Moreover, Bannon is often critical of senior management decisions but makes no comment on the historical context of the operation at the height of 1980s hooliganism and a year before the Hillsborough disaster in which the police's role remains under scrutiny. 

Running with the Firm is an entertaining and interesting first-hand account of a key point in British football history. The violence at Milwall's FA Cup semi-final against Wigan at Wembley in April showed how unfortunately prescient Bannon's story is but more context and commentary on this could have lifted this to the next level.

James Bannon explains his operation and actions

Article originally appeared on

Sunday 28 July 2013

How Sheffield FC are protecting football's founding roots

The world's first football club Sheffield FC celebrated the game's oldest derby last weekend as they took on Hallam FC at the Home of Football. Alex Lawson takes a look at how the club marked the occasion and how it is protecting the heritage of the beautiful game.
A mere 153 years after Sheffield FC persuaded a local cricket team to play this new fangled game named football, two of football's oldest teams united on the pitch once more. 
Sheffield FC v Hallam FC is football's oldest fixture
Sheffield FC, based in Dronfield, north Derbyshire, was created by solicitor Nathaniel Creswick and wine merchant William Prest who together drew up the laws of the game including throw-ins and corners, originally known as the 'Sheffield Rules'. After tempting Hallam into their first derby on Boxing Day 1860, the festive cheer between the two amateur teams has remained strong. Sheffield FC were formed in 1857 and are officially recognised by FIFA as the World's First Football Club. 
The club's determination for Creswick and Prest to be recognised as the founding fathers of the world's most popular sport has been clear and while Notts County's position as the world's oldest professional club, founded in 1862, is often quoted Sheffield FC's status is frequently referenced in the media. Its position was also noted by Pele, who attended a friendly match against Inter Milan at Bramall Lane in 2007 as the club marked its 150th anniversary.
Saturday's fixture did this esteemed legacy proud. The match was attended by locals as well as fans from Nuremberg and Munich in Germany and Genoa, Italy as well as local musicians and former professional footballers. On the pitch, a smart 4-2 victory for Sheffield FC kept their upstart 153-year-old rivals in place at the Home of Football, also perhaps less heroically dubbed the BT Local Business Stadium. Music from the likes of Sheffield band Reverend and the Makers and the Chris Waddle All Stars, fronted by the ex-England and Sheffield Wednesday winger, capped a traditional and fitting occasion in the nearby Coach and Horses pub. 
Former England star Chris Waddle attended the derby
The main event was preceded by a 'Pioneers Match' contested by two veterans sides representing Sheffield and Hallam, in which the former were victorious dressed in vintage-style get up in tribute to the teams' founders.
But while the weekend's event was a fitting and jovial celebration, Sheffield FC are deadly serious about their aims for the game which it invented. Among its stated aims are an improvement in grassroots cricket and protecting the sanctity of the values and identity of the game. "Football has started as a gentlemen’s game in 1857, a time when people came together on the pitch for the joy of playing - far offside the commercial world that football is dominated by today," chairman Richard Tims explains. "In this respect, our foundation wants to protect the roots and natural values of the game." 
Through its foundation, Sheffield FC has embarked on a number of projects including connecting with the local community to improve health as well as enjoyment of the game as well as its Boots for Africa initiative which has seen the club ship more than 25,000 pairs of boots to the continent since 2009. 
Sheffield FC is also attempting to map out the world's oldest clubs by using social media to discern which is the oldest club in every country before mapping them into a rather nifty timeline. "It will bring a light to the unknown and forgotten heroes of football's past and present times, helping to tell these beautiful and unique stories to the world, to capture and pass on the heritage of football that still lives on today, thanks to its inventors and pioneers," says Tims. 
Perhaps its most ambitious plan is to build a "place of pilgrimage for football fans from all over the world". The club wants to develop a museum and "holy ground" for football in the heart of Sheffield where it first played on Olive Grove. With a fanatical support for the game in the Steel City via the Owls and the Blades, there may be the local backing for this to be achieved. 
Sheffield FC are on a mission to preserve the elements of the game its founders crystallised and quickly enthralled the planet with. On the evidence of the passion and dedication with which its supported, the beautiful game is in safe hands.
Article originally appeared on

Sunday 5 May 2013

Sheffield Wednesday 2012-13 in review: Lessons we've learnt

Sheffield Wednesday confirmed their safety in the Championship yesterday with a comfortable -0 win over Middlesborough at Hillsborough. It was a surprisingly calm end to a dramatic season which saw the Owls burst out of the block before getting dragged into the relegation mire. Owls fan Alex Lawson looks at what the season taught us. 

Dave Jones can wheel, deal and drill 

After winning promotion in 2011-12, Owls boss Dave Jones made 14 summer signings and let some Owls favourites go. Defensive rock Rob Jones followed local boy and Owls left back Tommy Spurr to Doncaster, eventually winning promotion for the second season running. However, Nejc Pečnik , Rodri, Ryan Lowe and Diago Amado were among those brought in, although the latter left before the season even began after struggling to settle in in S6. The team appeared well drilled and raring to go in winning four games out of five in August including a defeat of Premier League Fulham in the Capital One Cup. 

There's a fight on for the number 1 jersey 
One of the summer's big questions had been who would start the season between the posts at Hillsborough. Stephen Bywater signed a one year deal after extensive negotiations, Owls fan Nicky Weaver remains at the club and academy product Aaron Jameson is also on the books. However the signing of former Wigan, Liverpool and England U21 keeper Chris Kirkland added steel to the defense. Kirkland has added authority to his game in recent years and scooping the 2013 Player of the Year award is justified in a season which featured 12 clean sheets behind a back line of  Miguel Llera and Anthony Gardner. Kirkland was also to feature in the season's highest profile moment when Leeds fan Aaron Crawley ran on to the pitch and hit him.

Milan Mandaric does possess some patience
A winless September followed by just two wins in October and November had Owls fans pondering whether Dave Jones was the right man for the job approaching the turn of the year. The feeling that Serbian chairman Milan Mandaric, who has a reputation for sacking managers quicker than you can eat and Eccles cake, would pull the plug on Jones was inevitable. The previous season he had sacked former Owls player and manager Gary Megson despite winning the Steel City Derby that week to install Jones. But Mandoric kept is faith in the Scouser which was eventually rewarded. 

Dave Jones hates the Championship
The Owls boss frequently expressed his hatred of the unpredictable division which has confounded followers this season. The Owls eventual finish in 18th on 58 points was just 10 points behind Leicester City who made the play-offs. Perhaps more tellingly, all three teams relegated would have stayed up the previous season. The feeling that any team could beat any other was confirmed and English football's most exciting division offered up a relentlessly entertaining second half to the season. Who can blame Jones' frustration at the league?

The forward line remains in doubt
The Owls have tested a number of partnerships up front this season and none have convinced. Dave Jones has burned through strikers unable to find a talisman. This is reflected by the season's goalscoring stats which left star midfielder Michael Antonio the winner of a golden boat which is probably a bit scuffed with the laces undone on nine goals ahead of winger/striker Jermaine Johnson on seven goals and defender Reda Johnson on six. With a loaned and travelled strike force of Leroy Lita and Steve Howard notching the all-important last day of the season goals, there remains a feeling the future has not been planned for. Chris Maguire was signed on a three year deal from Derby while Rodri came from Barcelona B but neither were given a great deal of opportunity or showed signs they could lead the line. Ryan Lowe and Chris O'Grady looked more effective but Jones sent the latter on loan to Barnsley in a bizarre move which almost cost him dear, with O'Grady scoring on the final day. Meanwhile, Blackburn who finished on the same points and one goal better, possess Jordan Rhodes who hit the net 28 times this season.

Anything Newcastle fans can do, we can do better
The Owls fans dressed up in Portuguese flags to celebrate midfield dynamo Jose Semedo for the trip to the City Ground. Although the support and singing for the tackling midfielder couldn't prevent Llera scoring an own goal in a 1-0 defeat it showed the power of social media in organising #semedoday and that if the Geordies can go French we can bring a Mediterranean feel to S6. 

Jones' private life will continue to be a feature
Taunts over the unproven allegations of child abuse continue to emanate from the Leppings Lane end every other Saturday to David Jones. The 56-year-old appears used to the chants however, they continue to be disgusting, if predictable part of supporting Wednesday. Jones himself was visible affected by chants from Leeds fans earlier this season. However, further claims made by The Sun over an extramarital affair with 30-year old netball player Sara-Louise Hale in March again dragged off-the-pitch affairs into the spotlight. 

More is to come on the HIllsborough disaster
The findings of the Hillsborough Independent Panel that lives could have been saved in September thrust S6 back into the spotlight and confirmed that it would remain so for some time. Owls fans have long been in an awkward position over the events on April15, 1989 in our ground policed by South Yorkshire Police. The club apologised to dead fans' families and the inquests into those who died after 3.15pm will be carefully watched by all involved with SWFC this year.

Crunch days are inevitable
The Owls have left their fate for the following season to the final day in three of the last four seasons, triumphing twice. The crunch matches, which have each drawn huge attendances over 30,000, have displayed both the fantastic support and unpredictable nature of one of the country's biggest clubs. If next season is to avoid going to the wire to stay up again, Jones will need to organise a settle side, decide on his best forwards and bring a winning mentality to Hillsborough.

Thursday 18 April 2013

Divided we stand - do your own fans embarrass you?

The infighting between Millwall fans last week shocked football, but should we be surprised that supporters may turn on each other Alex Lawson asks.

If the news that Millwall fans had been involved in fighting at Wembley last weekend was
Millwall fans fight each other at Wembley
unsurprising given the club's history, then the fact it was amongst themselves did raise eyebrows. Despite some good work done in cleaning up its image, Millwall's reputation for continuing to cause violence and disturbance prevails. However, usually clashes with rivals including West Ham have hit the headlines rather than infighting like the kind witnessed during the showpiece game against Wigan reportedly started by two families. 

But should we have really been surprised by the internal clashes laid bare in the half empty national stadium? Fans of certain clubs, when attending games, are presented as one homogenous mass who all think and believe the same things. We're funnelled into certain areas by police to travel home, even though we might be going to different areas of the country, and we're presented with the same treatment from stewards.

When we're in the ground, particularly as away fans, we're treated as one - told to sit down, shut up or stay behind. 

But the truth is that there are plenty of fans I've seen who make me embarrassed to support Sheffield Wednesday. I've witnessed countless Owls fans intimidate children on trains for no reason, chuck beer cans at strangers, insult the disabled and sing disgusting things at players or police. They may be in blue and white but they look pathetic. The Wednesday faithful are regularly praised for (however wisely) attending home and away games en masse and in full voice, which makes being part of it frequently incredible, but this can easily spill over. 

These are the people who make you feel stupid when people who don't love football question your obsession with the beautiful game. They see a swathe of football fans charging through a town intent on getting pissed, shouting and giving abuse to anyone who tries to limit those pursuits. They don't see the moments we're united after a wonderful goal or clap off the side after a valiant defeat. And, however much it might not seem the case, their views count - fans can't expect to gain the respect the majority of supporters deserve if the few show us up to those without our beliefs. 

The death of Margaret Thatcher, as well as the ugly scenes in the Millwall end, have stirred up the issue of football hooliganism again in the last two weeks. Clearly considerable efforts have been made and continue to be made in reducing violence in football and make attending football matches nothing but pleasant. The Kick It Out initiative to anonymously tip off stewards if fellow fans are being racism has worked well in pinpointing isolated idiots. The mindless actions of the few must not undermine the thoughts of the many. 

Monday 1 April 2013

How Hajduk Split fans created Europe's oldest football firm

With the controversial sentencing to death of 21 football fans in relation to the Port Said riots in Egypt earlier this year, football hooliganism has been thrust back into the mainstream spotlight in ugly fashion. Alex Lawson looks at how Europe's oldest football firm have put a more positive spin on ardent support in Croatia. 

Astronauts looking down on earth in February 2011 would've been greeted with an unusual sight. Alongside the Great Wall of China and Felix Baumgartner on practice missions, thousands of flares lit up the night sky as the Torcida celebrated the 100th year of their beloved club Hajduk Split. Their slogan, 'Hajduk lives forever', appears apt.

The creation and continued existence of Europe's oldest football firm, Torcida, has proved one of the most engaging tales in world football. In 1950 several young sailors from the island of Korcula, Yugoslavia attended what is known as the Maracanazo – The Maracanã Blow. The landmark match on July 16 1950 in Rio de Janeiro saw Uruguay's Alcides Ghiggia crush Brazil's hopes of a first ever World Cup victory as they secured their second title. For the sailors, the passion and chanting exuded by the 200,000-strong crowd at the historic ground provided the inspiration to form the Torcida ultras, named after the Brazilian Portuguese word for supporters.

Returned home several months later, the young fans formed the firm just a day before their beloved Hajduk secured the most famous victory in their history - a 2-1 win over rivals Red Star Belgrade in Hajduk's Stari Plac stadium after going through the season undefeated, a record which still stands. The triumph, in front of 20,000 squeezed-in fans, was their first Yugoslavian league title and an ideal birth place for the Torcida.

However, the victory over the privileged Red Star inflamed the authorities and the Yugoslav Communist Party moved to clamp down on the Torcida and its members. Founder Vjenceslav Žuvela was expelled from the communist party and thrown in jail while the Torcida’s name was forbidden from being spoken.

Ultimately, the Torcida and its proud tradition for vocal and ardent support resurfaced. After a period of success in the 1970s, during which the club won four championships, a new generation of Hajduk fans reinvigorated the Torcida name, keen to collectivise their passion for the club through new anthems and flags and claiming the north stand of their new Poljud stadium. During the war for independence from 1991 to 1995 many soldiers were united by the Torcida bond on the front line. The ultras’ passion continues unabated to this day.

However, an anti-establishment firm spawned from a war torn region blighted by conflict has not existed without violence. In 1984, the club was banned from hosting international matches when a live rooster was slaughtered by a member of the Torcida in the centre of the pitch before a European fixture with Spurs, who carry the animal on their club badge. In 1961, referee Aleksandar Skoric was attacked and beaten by a fan following a match in which he ruled out a Hajduk goal against FK Sarajevo.

But Hajduk’s reputation is far from simply a violent horde of fans. Benfica’s No Name ultras have fostered a strong connection with the Torcida after an extraordinary incident in the early 1990s. During the Croatian war for independence, No Name displayed a ‘Freedom for Croatia’ banner at a match. When the teams played in the Champions League in 1995, three Benfica fans were killed in an incident on a bus and a strong bond was developed when Hajduk fans brought flowers to the Stadium of Light on the return leg.

The context of The Torcida's snowballing support is vital in understanding how the firm has continued to grow. It cannot be underestimated how crucial Hajduk Split - and fierce rivals Dinamo Zagreb - have been to the evolution of Croatian football.

The Independent State of Croatia played its first competitive match against Switzerland in 1940 during World War II however, when the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia was formed post-war, a cluster of clubs baring Croatian names were forced to disband and destroy their record. Hajduk was the largest club to avoid this. Throughout the 1960s and 1970s Hajduk and Dinamo formed half of the Big Four of Yugloslav football alongside Serbian sides FK Partizan and Red Star Belgrade, arguably the most unlikely winners of the European Cup in 1991.

Hajduk have proved consistently key in representing Croatian football on the European club stage, not least in the European Cup where they are the only Croatian side to have reached the quarter finals doing so on three occasions, most recently in 1994-95. They also reached the semi-final of the European Cup Winners' Cup in 1972-73 and have contributed a raft of players to a Croatian national side which has acquitted itself well since forming in 1992 with strong showings in Euro 96 and World Cup 1998 spearheaded by national hero Davor Šuker.

The Torcida have become an inspiration for many groups of ultras around Europe and have even inspired a spin-off in the Netherlands. Torcida Rotterdam, made up of Croatian Feyenoord fans as well Dutch supporters, attend every Feyenoord match as well as Hadjuk’s European games.

Their brand of ardent support which has, admittedly spilt over into violence on occasion, contrasts significantly with some of the world's other notable firms predicated on violence and organised crime with football often a distant second. In the UK, the notorious Leeds Service Crew (LSC), which was founded in 1974, was named after public service trains which the firm would take to avoid heavily policed football specials. The LSC still has several hundred members and is rivalled only by similar fan groups at London clubs West Ham United and Millwall who have maintained tenacious reputations despite the best efforts of their respective clubs.

Further afield, Argentina provides a home to some of the most ferocious organised fan groups - named barras bravas - founded, like The Torcida, in the 1950s. Independiente's La Barra Del Rojo is among the most notable of these. The politically left wing group, which contains a swathe of sub-groups throughout the port city's suburbs, is a highly hierarchical organisation with a four-tier system of support from the drum and flag wavers at the bottom to the "bosses" of its sub-groups who handle ticket sales, drugs and even bodyguard services to union leaders.

Social media has also proved key in setting The Torcida apart in recent years. A considerable number of Twitter accounts and Youtube videos of fans in action have helped amass members and aid communication and organisation between fans. Meanwhile, a documentary released last year by filmmakers Mate Prlic and Milan Latkovic called 1950 - Hajduk and Torcida - has further aided member recruitment online.

But with support for the Torcida in rude health following mass celebrations of Hajduk’s centenary in 2011, Europe’s oldest firm was dealt a blow last year. Crippled by a mountain of debt, the club were forced to ask the city council for a loan to avoid bankruptcy. Fans chanted at the city hall in their thousands and handed out leaflets saying: “In the long history of Hajduk, we survived regimes of Austro-Hungarian empire, Kingdom of Yugoslavia, fascist Italy, socialist Yugoslavia and we will survive this regime.”

The council eventually gave way to political pressure and granted the loan which has prolonged Hajduk’s existence. However, the prospect of a one-year UEFA ban from Europe, along with eight other clubs from around the continent, due to financial irregularities and debt levels looms large and will serve as little comfort for a club in need of competition revenues. The Torcida has proved to be as much a movement as a football firm but its members and those caught up in its momentum will hope their beloved Hajduk really can live forever.

Article originally appeared on